Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Dark Side of Altruism

I have written extensively about altruism, in my Encyclopedia of Evolution, as well as in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released this fall by Prometheus books (for more information, see my website). When animals are nice to other members of their species, they enjoy lots of benefits; nature is not simply “red in tooth and claw,” to use Tennyson’s oft-quoted phrase. Humans are, it appears, the animal species with the most complicated forms of altruism.

But clearly the positive benefits of altruism are not, by themselves, enough to have influenced the evolution of altruism. There is also a dark side to altruism. Animals also exercise violent actions against those who are cheaters in the altruism game. This confers a penalty upon those individuals who do not practice altruism. “Sweet revenge” appears to be as hard-wired in our brains as is friendship and love. And it is not just an instinct; it is a pleasure. It is a pleasure that can more suddenly and completely take over our brains than almost any other passion.

One example of this sudden, mindless zeal against cheaters took place in the aftermath of the European theater of World War II. In an earlier entry, I told about meeting with my cousins in a rural cemetery on Memorial Day weekend, and exchanging some of our uncle’s war stories. Here is one of them.

The Germans had been defeated, and Allied troops, including my uncle Bill when he was a very young adult, fresh off an Oklahoma farm, were escorting German prisoners of war to prisons. All of them were on foot—the Allied guards, and the prisoners. This was, from the viewpoint of the Allied soldiers as well as most of the defeated Germans, a fair thing: once the war ended, there was no more need for killing, and now it was time for justice, which meant the execution, after judgment, of only the men who were most responsible for causing the war. But Bill recognized that one of the prisoners was an SS soldier. The SS soldiers had been trained as Nazi killing machines. For them, the war would not be over until death. They had all just finished eating lunch, and Bill wanted to light up a cigarette as he was, by himself, guarding the prisoners. It was windy. For just a moment—and he knew as soon as he did this that it was unwise—he leaned his rifle against the wall of a building to shelter the match from the wind. That was all of the time it took for the SS soldier to jump up and grab the rifle, with the intention of killing Bill. He grabbed the rifle also. The SS soldier, who was quite large, pushed against Bill, who was quite small, and Bill pushed back; they pushed each other a second time. Bill knew that he could not withstand the strong enemy. So when the SS soldier pushed a third time, Bill moved aside and tripped him. As the SS soldier fell, Bill took another gun out of its holster and shot the SS soldier in the back. He went into a trance, and just kept shooting. It took him awhile to notice that he had used all eight of his bullets, and the gun was going click-click-click. His comrades were now at his side.

Uncle Bill had slipped into a state that the Vikings called “berserk,” which is a term that specifically describes an alternate state of mind, almost dreamlike in quality, which encompasses a warrior in the midst of battle. We use the term loosely today to describe people who are out of control due to anger, but it is a mental state that anyone can slip into, and it clearly provided evolutionary benefits to our ancestors. It is an extreme form of the dark side of altruism. While I do not believe that it is good for us to go berserk, except in extreme situations such as Bill’s, it is clearly beneficial for us to not just promote good and altruistic policies and actions, but also to connect evil and selfish policies and actions with swift and sure punishment, of the appropriate variety. For example, Wall Street executives should not simply be scolded for causing the financial meltdown of 2008; they need the appropriate form of punishment, which is financial.

In extreme situations, such as Bill’s in 1945, there is no time for a trial. But those who execute sweet revenge need to explain their actions. Bill had to explain himself before a military panel. It was clear that he was defending himself and his comrades against an obviously evil enemy. But Bill also had a sense of humor. When a commanding officer asked him why he had used eight bullets, he said, “I didn’t have nine, and seven wasn’t quite enough.”

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